lunedì 16 maggio 2016

Through Sartre and Marcuse: For a Realistic Utopia

by Federico Sollazzo (; I of 2)

Federico SOLLAZZO[1]

            Abstract. In this article Through Sartre and Marcuse: For a Realistic Utopia I propose the “realistic utopia” as a moral and political paradigm that can orient us towards a satisfactory life in our own society, I analyze the status of a realistic utopia, the chances to build it and whether the movements of protest of  nowadays (often juxtaposed with those of the ’68) are credible subjects for its realization, or not. This is the reason why it is important pass through Sartre and Marcuse. They were two of the ’68 inspiring figures, but we have to untie their thought from the exclusive reference to that period and vogue, because still today they can provide us the conceptual tools to comprehend, and therefore shape, the world in a realistic utopian way.
            Keywords. Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre, realistic utopia, protest movements.

            Nowadays we are immersed in a global cultural and economic crisis. Several movements of protest are been born in front of them (e.g. the socalled Indignados or Occupy Wall Street), sometimes organized also in parliamentary formations, which give rise to a global contestation that is often compared to the movements of the 1968. However, notwithstanding the deep cultural, social, political, economical differences between these two periods, in order to try to understand if and in which measure this confronting is possible, we have to analyze the conceptual tools proposed in the ’68, seeing if they are still suitable nowadays, and also if the old and current movements of protest have really grabbed the conceptual content of that thought. For analyze that conceptual background, we will take here in consideration the thought of two of the maîtres-penseurs of that time, Jean-Paul Sartre and Herbert Marcuse. 
            As is known, the main slogan of the May ’68 was “power to the imagination”: the idea that the empowered imagination would make possible a glimpse of authentic freedom; an idea leaded forward through existentialist and Marxist conceptual tools[2]. However, the Modern development across all the Western world, latter increasingly extended up to almost coincide with the entire globe (and in all cases, affecting the entire globe), of the capitalist mode of production and consumption and, especially and proper nowadays, the explosion of the technological rationality, about which still remain lighting the analyzes of the first School of Frankfurt and of Martin Heidegger[3], show how the imagination is resulted useful for industrial, technical, entertainment-based applications than for a liberation of man, for the socalled system than for its alternatives.
            Under this regard it seems to me that it still remains to meditate accurately on the legacy of two famous sentences, one by Marcuse and one by Heidegger. That of Marcuse: «A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technical progress», and that of Heidegger: «the essence of technique is nothing technical»[4].
            Indeed, it is very interesting to note that if, as Foucault showed[5], power (re)produces itself through individuals and so (re)produces life (bios), and if nowadays we are not in a society without creativity (like in the Fritz Lang’s vision of Metropolis), this means that this society needs the creativity to maintain itself, but a controlled creativity, in a sort of oases, functional for this system. A confirmation of the correctness of the Marcusean analysis about the issue that the efficiency and the rationalized society (in the model of the instrumental rationality) can absorb, transform and redirect all forms of revolt and creativity, fantasy, imagination.    
            However, in its essence, that of May ’68 was an ethos of claim and imagination of a better life. But – this is the philosophical point – not better, directly through political and/or economical strategies, but through a philosophy of life, which produces changes in politics and economy, just as aftermaths of itself. So the question was: how to live a «life without anxiety»[6], how liberate men and things from the Angst.
            We know that there is a big difference between Sartre’s existentialism and Marcuse’s Marxism, since for the first the anxiety remains an ontological condition of individual, which could at least be alleviated, and for the second the angst is an historical element that oppress all the individuals, and which could be historically exceeded, nevertheless, “power to the imagination” was for both a kind of utopian manifesto. Of course, not utopian because naive and impossible to realize, but utopian in a dialectical sense: what is not yet present, but could be[7]. In this way the imagination plays a central role which, however, is nowadays absorbed into and instrumentalized from the current status quo, the established order of things, until the point in which alternatives become even unimaginable. This is the reason why is interesting analyze the utopian impulse in Sartre and Marcuse. Not to return to the conditions of May ’68, which are in any event long gone and in some respects undesirable, but in order to see whether and how they can help us in understanding (and so, act) in the situation of today. 
            In Sartre’s elaboration the anxiety (Angst) describes the individual’s existential, ontological, condition, where “existence precedes essence”. Sartre is profoundly influenced of the Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit, until claiming that the inescapable characteristic of being-in-the-world is “just” that it exist, and cannot be otherwise[8]. The existent can only have a meaning because it is into the world, and cannot have one apart from it. So the only one way to have a meaningful existence is projecting this by the individual.
            Referring to this, Sartre writes:

What do we mean here by 'existence precedes essence'? We mean that man first exists: he materializes in the world, encounters himself, and only afterwards defines himself. If man as existentialists conceive of him cannot be defined, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself [for this] man is condemned to be free: condemned, because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free, because once cast into the world, he is responsible for everything he does[9]

            From this condemnation to be free, arises the mood that Sartre calls “nausea” in the novel by that name.
            We can recognize, in this Sartrean elaboration, the mark of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit, in particular the concepts of “uncanny” (unheimlich) and “not-being-at-home” (nicht-zuhause-sein). Namely, the conception for which man ever experiments the condition of the unfamiliarity of the world, because the world in which we are thrown is not of our own making, and this produces anxiety:

In anxiety one feels 'uncanny' [unhemlich]. Here the peculiar indefiniteness of that which Dasein finds itself alongside in anxiety, come proximally to expression: the 'nothing and nowhere'. But here 'uncannies' also means 'not-being-at-home' [Nicht-zuhause-sein][10]

            But this anxiety permits, or even obliges, man to develop strategies for navigating through the uncannies spaces, shaping the world, while is elaborating one’s project which defines one’s existence. Here, in this freedom, that for Sartre (but not for Marcuse) is absolute and ontological, take place the role of imagination which undergirds consciousness in creating a “real” world, insofar it is a consciously understood world. «Thus imagination, far from appearing an accidental characteristic, is disclosed as an essential and transcendental condition of consciousness»[11].
            In Marcuse, as I sketched before, the existential situation in which the man is, is not ontological but historical. This means that the choice we are called to do marks “the realm of possibilities into the realm of reality”; indeed the social theory

is opposed to all metaphysics by virtue of the rigorously historical character of the transcendence. The 'possibilities' must be within the reach of the respective society; they must be definable goals of practice[12]

            Therefore in Marcuse, unlike than Sartre, what matters is not the ontology but the history, until the point in which

The way in which a society organizes the life of its members involves an initial choice     between historical alternatives which are determined by the inherited level of the material     and intellectual culture[13]

            It follows that, in order to give much freedom to the individual, is fundamental to enlarge the borders of the social scenario in which individuals are (beginning with the conceptual ones), transcending the status quo, the established order of things.
            Following these thoughts Marcuse embraces the way of the power of negative (which for him was an intellectual militancy against the scientific positivism of mid-twentieth-century and the mainstream culture of the same period of the capitalist consumerism supported by the technological rationality; problems which, far to be solved nowadays, have evolved into new forms): the “Great Refusal”. But this dialectic of the negative, of the refusal, based on an aesthetic foundation, establishes a social theory that is not merely the apprehension of the existing social formation but, through this comprehension, a way to project realistic alternatives.

The nomos which art obeys is not that of the established reality principle but of its negation. But mere negation would be abstract, the 'bad' utopia. The utopia in great art is never the simple negation of the reality principle but its transcending preservation (Aufhebung)[14]

[1] University of Szeged.
[2] See: G. Borghello, Cercando il ’68. Udine: Forum, 2012, and G. Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968. Boston: South End, 1987.
[3] See: C. Corradetti, The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory. “Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy”, 21/X/2011:, and M. Heidegger (1953), Die Frage nach de Technik. Id., Vorträge und Aufsätze. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2000, and M. Horkheimer, T.W. Adorno (Dialektik der Aufklärung, 1947), Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Trans. E. Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2007, and H. Marcuse (1964), One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of the Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon, 1991, and F. Sollazzo, Sulla questione della tecnica in M. Heidegger.  Id., Totalitarismo, democrazia, etica pubblica. Scritti di Filosofia morale, Filosofia politica, Etica. Roma: Aracne, 2011, and Id., Tecnologia, politica e complessità. “Critica Liberale”, 04/04/2013:
[4] H. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man. Supra, p. 3, and M. Heidegger (Die Frage nach de Technik, 1953), The Question Concerning Technology. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. W. Lovitt. New York: Harper and Row, 1977, p. 32.
[5] See: M. Foucault, La Volonté de savoir: Histoire de la sexualité I. Paris: Gallimard, 1976, and Id., Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison. Paris: Gallimard, 1975.
[6] H. Marcuse (1955), Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Boston: Beacon, 1966, p. 150.
[7] See: H. Marcuse, (Die Permanenz der Kunst: Wieder einer bestimmte Marxistische Aesthetik, 1977), The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. Trans. H. Marcuse and J. Sherover. Boston; Beacon, 1978, and J-P. Sartre, Préface. F. Fanon, Le Damnés de la Terre. Paris: Maspero, 1961.  
[8] Still, we have to note that Sartre misunderstands Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit, not understanding  that for the German philosopher “Sein ist Zeit”, being is time. It follows that for Heidegger the characters of the being are absolutely not ontological as immutable, eternal, meta-historical, but ontological as part of the current being which is always in fieri because is time. See: M. Heidegger (1927), Sein und Zeit. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2006. In his review of Being and Nothingness, Marcuse harshly criticizes Sartre for this misunderstanding of Heidegger, and also because the Sartrean Pour-soi does not differentiate between the individual level and the social one, and for the thought for which the mismatch between the Pour-soi and the En-soi would be an ontological situation instead of an historical one. See: H. Marcuse, Existentialism: Remarks on Jean-Paul Sartre’s L’Être et le Néant. “Philosophy and Phenomenological Research”, vol. VIII, n. 3, 1948, pp. 309-336. On the Marcusean critique of L’Être et le Néant see: B. Lightbody, Death and Liberation: A Critical Investigation of Death in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. “Minerva - An Internet Journal of Philosophy”, n. 13, 2009, pp. 85-98: Sartre and Marcuse had a confront in the article A propos du livre On a raison de se révolter. “Libération”, 07/VI/1964. On a possible similar background between the late Sartre and Marcuse see: A. Bene, L’influenece de Max Webere sur la philosophie de Jean-Paul Sartre. Újlatin nyelvek és kultúrák. (Eds.) É. Oszetzky and K. Bene. Pécs: MTA and PTE, 2011.     
[9] J-P. Sartre (L’existentialisme est un humanisme, 1946), Existentialism is a Humanism. Trans. C. Macomber. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007, pp. 22 and 29. See also: Id., (L’Être et le Néant. Essai d’ontologie phénoménologique, 1943), Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology. Trans. H. E. Barnes. New York: Washington Square, 1956.
[10] M. Heidegger (1927), Being and Time. Trans. J. Macquarie and E. Robinson. New York: Harper and Row, 1962, p. 233. Under this regard, could be interesting to note that in his work The Theory of the Novel György Lukács argues that the modern novel is the aftermath of the disintegrated or open modern civilization, which follows the integrated or closed civilization of the ancient world, and from which arises a character of “transcendental homelessness”. See: G. Lukács (Die Theorie des Romans, 1916), The Theory of the Novel. Trans. A. Bostock. Cambridge: MIT UP, 1971.
[11] J-P. Sartre (L’imaginaire, psychologie phénoménologique de l’imagination, 1940), The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination. Trans. J. Webber. London: Routledge, 2004, p. 188.
[12] H. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man. Supra, pp. xli-xlii.
[13] H. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man. Supra, p. xlvi.
[14] H. Marcuse, The aesthetic dimension. Supra, p. 73.

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